Dangerous Dreams

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that everyone has the potential to use dreams as exposition or foreshadowing. Unfortunately, not everyone does it well. There are a number of pitfalls that come from leaning on dreams to serve vital roles in a story.

The biggest mistake, of course, is not balancing the level of information with the needs of the overall story, either by being too blatant or a little too subtle. Too blatant, and it’s all figured out ahead of time; too subtle, and nobody ever gets it. If it’s just foreshadowing, you can get away with making it more obscure, since it doesn’t matter if people get it or not. On the other hand, if the proper course of events depends on people being able to make sense of that dream, you need to make sure it can be made sense of—in a game situation, if they can’t get it themselves, they should at least be able to roll for some sort of hint.

Not knowing your own dream metaphysics is also a dangerous path. Granted, dreams are a lot more fluid than the ‘real’ world, so a law or two of physics slipping isn’t going to draw near the negative attention that a law of waking-world physics or magic would. But if something’s been established as impossible, and it happens anyway, there had better be a very good reason.

One thing that most people don’t recognize as the problem that it is is not signaling what kind of expository dream they’re seeing. I talked yesterday about prophetic dreams, backstory dreams, and characterization dreams; though you often see elements of each in any given dream sequence, there’s usually one that serves as the primary purpose. Now imagine you’ve embedded an important facet of a character in a dream, or a vital clue to his hitherto-unknown backstory, and you’re waiting for the payoff as your audience realizes what it means. But you hang out where they hang out, either physically or virtually, and all you see is discussion about the significance of the fact that one minor character appeared brandishing a peacock feather on a stick. They won’t let go of it, they keep waiting until you think it’s no longer an issue and then asking about it, and as far as you can tell they’re fully aware that something vital went on there but they won’t let go of this “feather on a stick” thing.

Overanalysis of symbolism is the most common problem; people get so tied up with the metaphorical aspects of whatever holds still long enough that they miss the literal ones. But there’s also the risk that a too-realistic prophetic dream gets interpreted as a memory, or that throwaway dream intended just to emphasize the character’s mindset comes off as a portent of things to come. Therefore, you will usually need to signal a dream’s purpose one way or another—making memories more grounded in what is and has been than prophetic dreams, showing clear evidence that a dream of the future hasn’t happened yet, not putting so much weight on a characterization dream that it seems vital. Unless, of course, part of the idea is to make a mystery out of what kind of dream the dream is, in which case you should plant a few clues, have a couple hints ready, and see what comes of it.

And then you have use of too much symbolism in a dream. Not only does it annoy the audience to have to put in that level of effort to get an accurate read, particularly if every single bit of it is vital to understanding the dream as a whole, but it often results in the opposite problem later, when everyone expects Every! Single! Thing! to be symbolic and you’re just trying to get a few major points and not set off a full dissection. Sometimes a peacock feather on a stick is just a peacock feather on a stick.

So be careful—it’s easy to make the mistakes that turn a character’s dream into a creator’s nightmare.

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